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It’s personal in Cuba

The mystique and culture of Cuba make it a tantalizing destination for Americans, who have been largely unable to visit the nearby island nation for more than half a century. But many of the things that make Cuba so shadowy and intriguing — its socialist economy, oppressive government, widespread poverty and difficult relations with the United States — also create some special challenges for American visitors.

Even experienced international travelers may find some unexpected situations on a tour of Cuba. Here are some things your group should know about before departing for a trip there.

•  Bring lots of cash. In most of the modern world, American travelers can use credit cards to pay for things or can access their home banks via ATMs to get cash in local currency. But because of economic sanctions against Cuba, there is no access to American banks and no credit card network. This means that once you arrive on the island, the only money you have access to is what you have brought in your pocket. To make sure you don’t run out before the return trip home, bring plenty of American cash — two to three times what you would normally carry on an international trip.

•  Communication is limited.  When I left for Cuba, I naively assumed that I would be able to use Skype to communicate online with my wife at home, as I do whenever I travel abroad. After arriving, I learned just how wrong I was. For all intents and purposes, the Internet doesn’t exist in Cuba. Some hotels have pay-per-minute business centers, but even they rarely have Web access. The only way to communicate with loved ones at home is to make phone calls, which cost about $3 per minute.

•  Shop carefully.  If you’re a prodigious shopper when you travel, you need to exercise caution in Cuba. U.S. economic sanctions restrict the items that People-to-People travelers can bring back from the country. Small trinkets are OK, as are art and other culture items. But highly popular Cuban goods — i.e., rum and cigars — are strictly prohibited. Although you can consume those things while on the island, trying to sneak them back into the States can get you in big trouble.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.